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Empowering Communities Affected by Fracking

Residents gain knowledge and credibility in quest to understand the effects of unconventional oil and gas development


Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a topic that has divided residents across many U.S. communities over the past decade. Fear is often at the heart of these divisions—fear that oil and gas development activities will disrupt residents’ lives, pollute their environment and threaten their health. Perhaps greatest of all is the fear that these impacts will occur without anyone documenting them or holding responsible parties to account.

In 2017, Thriving Earth Exchange launched a cohort of projects designed to address community concerns over hydraulic fracturing. By pairing community members with scientists experienced in environmental assessment, the projects aimed to help communities address their fears by equipping them with the tools and knowledge to understand whether, and how, oil and gas development might affect their environment and health.

As two of the projects wrap up, participants reflect on how community-scientist collaborations can take on seemingly insurmountable problems, even helping small communities feel powerful in the face of Goliaths like major energy companies. While fracking continues to affect their lives, residents report a greater sense of empowerment and confidence in their ability to protect and improve their communities.


Unexpected events intensify monitoring needs in Barnesville, Ohio

Jill Hunkler, community lead for the project in Barnesville, Ohio, had serious concerns about the expanding fracking industry around her town. “Finding out that, on average, it takes 11 million gallons of water to frack one well, and that [the water] is then permanently contaminated with toxic chemicals, was terrifying,” she says. “I became a leader to protect my family, community, and land, air, and water that is so valued and loved.”

The community was matched with John Stolz, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University. Early on, the team identified water quality as a primary concern. They decided that Hunkler, an experienced local activist and community organizer, would spearhead a public education campaign and lead community forums, while Stolz would help the community analyze water samples to identify potential fracking-related contaminants.

Hunkler’s concern about water quality dates back to 2016, when thousands of gallons of toxic fracking fluid spilled into a local reservoir, significantly impacting local water quality. In addition, a more recent “blowout” at a fracking well created a toxic plume that lasted nearly three weeks. In the face of these events, testing for contaminants in local water bodies became more important than mere monitoring.

Working with an expert to gather on-the-ground data boosted residents’ confidence to approach local and state officials about their concerns. In addition, they engaged with social media and news outlets to reach a wider audience, even giving then-gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich a tour of several fracking sites.

“Dr. Stolz brought a new level of credibility and justification for my continued work on these issues,” Hunkler says. “Citizens cannot rely on regulatory agencies to protect them. They must find programs like Thriving Earth Exchange, who will partner them with a scientist.”


Devising a low-cost, long-term water monitoring tool in Cambridge, Ohio

Residents of Cambridge, Ohio were similarly concerned about how hydraulic fracturing might harm the quality and quantity of their water supply. Leatra Harper, Managing Director of FreshWater Accountability Project teamed up with Chris Spiese, Ph.D., of Ohio Northern University to find out if the community’s fears were warranted.

The team devised several methods to test for contaminants in surface waters around Wills Creek, which is near several fracking sites and supplies most of the county’s water. At community meetings, Harper and Spiese shared the findings with local stakeholders. Spiese noted that the information helped calm some residents’ “chemophobia,” but added that the data points to a need for continued water monitoring to hold the industry accountable for emissions, especially in the absence of adequate regulation.

Another important outcome of the project is the passive water sampler the team devised, which will live on after the project as a low-cost, long-term solution for monitoring water and determining the source of any contaminants. The sampler could give other communities an important tool for monitoring their water quality, as well.

Participants report that the project was more work than they had anticipated, but well worth the effort. “We had to learn how to balance all of the other demands on our time outside of the project, as well as learn not to compare ourselves to the other groups working in the same area,” Spiese says.

Although the Thriving Earth Exchange project has ended, team members continue the effort, especially in the area of water quantity, which is more complex to assess than water quality. They are working to secure funding to gather more data and continue to educate local stakeholders.

Spiese advises other communities seeking to solve similar problems to communicate clearly and have realistic expectations about what can be accomplished. It is also important to let local concerns frame the projects, and to encourage local authorities to support these efforts, Hunkler      notes.

A third project in the cohort, centered around Robinson and Smith Townships, Penn., continues to collect data and engage with community members to address concerns around the environmental impacts of fracking and its associated industrial infrastructure in their area.

mgoodwin editor

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